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Stepfamilies are different

Stepfamilies are in some ways like first-time-round families.  They are also, in many other ways, vastly different.  Most people who become a part of a stepfamily are unprepared for the differences.  These differences can include:

  • The complexity of stepfamilies - there are many more family relationships in stepfamilies.  There are likely to be grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and a parent living outside the family with no links with other members of the stepfamily.
  • The new couple’s different attitudes to child-rearing.
  • Emotional upheavals. Family members may have experienced distress from the break-up of the previous marriage or relationship. Some may still be grieving for the family they have lost.
  • Huge changes. All members of the stepfamily, including those living outside the family, must cope with the change and make a number of adjustments.
  • More parents. There are more parent figures in a stepfamily and the parenting may be shared by someone outside the family.
  • Different likes and dislikes. There is no common history and different family members may have different ideas about how things are done.

Whether the previous relationship ended through death, separation or divorce, there are many people who need to adjust to the new relationship.

The expectation for the new family to appear like a first-time-round family with two natural parents and their children living in one household together, can cause pain for everyone. It can involve the denial of the existence of other parents and relatives. It is important to accept that the stepfamily will never be the same as the first-time-round family and to identify the benefits of being in a stepfamily.

New step-parents and step-children are unlikely to instantly love each other and recognise each other's strengths. Love cannot be forced upon each other and the relationship may take time to develop.

Not an instant family

Stepfamilies are complex and it may take some time for strong family relationships to form.

Stepfamilies need to address two important issues:

  • coping with the past
  • negotiating relationships in the new family.

Coping with the past

It is important to allow for past experiences as much as possible. For example, children who were exposed to violence in their original family may take a long time to be able to really trust a new step-parent. This has nothing to do with the step-parent, but is a legacy of the past.

It is often tempting to not talk about the past as it holds painful memories. Yet it is best for the new partner to know about past difficulties. Children should also know if they are old enough. This helps to minimise secrets and taboo topics of conversation, both of which can lead to tension and difficulty. The new stepfamily also needs to work out ways of coping with contact between children and their other parent.

Negotiating relationships in the new family

Relationships in stepfamilies take time to develop and have to be negotiated in ways that are often not necessary in the original family where relationships evolved over time. Learning to live in a stepfamily is a process that can take years rather than months.

There are many people to consider:

  • the children of both partners, including the visiting children of one partner
  • the children’s other parent  and perhaps his/her new children and step-children
  • grandparents and other extended family members
  • children of new relationships

and many issues:

  • the age order of the children may have been altered in a blended family
  • the children may have different interests from their step parent and step-siblings
  • a child may have special needs that affect the whole family
  • how birthdays, special occasions and school events are managed
  • a step-parent may have no experience of parenting children or of parenting children older than his/her own, and have unrealistic expectations.

How Relationships Australia can help you

Relationships Australia runs courses that deal with issues such as living in a blended family.  Find out about the Family Skills - Parenting Courses in your state or territory.

If you are unsure whether to proceed with re-marriage or setting up a household together, or if you are finding things heavy-going after you have taken that step, consider talking to a counsellor.

A counsellor's experience of the challenges and difficulties of re-marriage and stepfamilies could be of assistance to you.  It makes more sense than ignoring the difficulties and hoping for the best.

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